What are the four Ways of Knowing (WOKs)?

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In this post, a quick introduction into the four Ways of Knowing (WOK)!

So, you are now sitting in front of your computer reading this very post about the Ways of Knowing. How do you know that? Honestly! How do you know that you are reading this text right now? Is it because someone told you? Of course not. You know it because your senses tell you so. You can read the text with your eyes (vision), you hear the sound of the computer fan humming (hearing), and you feel that you are sitting on a chair (touch).

Philosophers have identified these four ways of knowing: Sense Perception, Language, Emotion/intuition and Logics/Reason. Pick one fact that you know and ask yourself what the sources of this piece of knowledge are. From where do you know it? You will soon discover that it is possible to trace you knowledge back to one of these four Ways of Knowing. Let’s start with a little example: “I know that atoms exist”. How do you know it? Have you ever seen, heard or felt atoms before? I can hardly imagine. Sense perception is therefore an unlikely source. Do you intuitively and emotionally feel their existence? Hopefully not! The most likely source of this knowledge is that someone told, most probably a teacher, you or that you read about them. The source of this knowledge is therefore language.

  • Sense Perception: You know certain things because you can see and perceive them yourself. Empiricists consider sense perception so important that they will say that all knowledge comes from the senses.
  • Language/Authority: You know certain things because someone (an authority who knows more than you) told you personally or you read it somewhere. A person who had more knowledge than you passed on his/her knowledge with the help of language.
  • Emotion/intuition: You know certain things because you feel them emotionally. You know that certain things are ethically not right. Some decisions in your life are so complicated that you have to rely on your intuition.
  • Logics/Reason: You know certain things because you can apply logics and reasoning. You know that 2 times 3 is 6 not because of sense perception or because someone told you. You know the solution because you can calculate an answer by applying the rules of math. Rationalist consider reason and logics so important, that they say that all sources of our knowledge comes from our ability to use reasoning.

As a motivated TOK student (which I hope that you are!) you are certainly waiting for some counter arguments! And I am not going to disappoint you!

You may know how to ride a bike or play a music instrument. What are the sources of this type of knowledge? Do you know these things because someone told you or by applying reasoning and logics? Can you really learn to ride a bike by reading a book? No? Not at all? Or maybe a little? Certainly some theoretical foundation would indeed help, but it is not enough. Can you learn how to play a music instrument by watching someone else play (sense perception)? I think that you all would agree that one can learn a lot by observing expert musicians. But does this alone make you an expert in this field as well? Probably not.

The four Ways of Knowing are very useful if one talks about declarative knowledge. This type of knowledge is the knowledge of facts. Knowing how to ride a bike or play a music instrument or a sport is an entirely different kind of knowledge. It is procedural knowledge. This type of knowledge can be increased by practice and by trial and error. The four WOK work best when we talk about the knowledge of facts and can not be applied well to procedural knowledge.

But wait! What about the following statement: “I know my friend”. What ways of knowing can you apply here? Again we see that the four WOK can not be really applied well. This type of knowledge is “knowledge by acquaintance” and is again a different category… This is what I like about TOK. It helps us understand how horribly inconsistent and varied our language is, and how sloppy we sometimes are when we use such words as “knowledge”. As soon as we take a step back and see the issue from a distance, we very quickly discover that the word “knowing” is used in many different ways and that we sometimes ourselves don’t really know how the word “knowing” is used.

It is an hypothesis that the sun will rise tomorrow: and this means that we do not know whether it will rise.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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4 Responses to What are the four Ways of Knowing (WOKs)?

  1. Anna Igharas

    Theank you so much. I cannot tell you how much this helped with my TOK project.

  2. Samuel

    Emotion should not be linked with intuition. Though they appear similar, IBO considers them distinct ways of knowing

  3. Tejas Thathachar

    A well defined article describing the ways of knowing was always demanded and hence this supply was much awaited. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write this genuinely helpful article for the benefit of you juniors doing the IBDP in the years to come.

  4. Fabrice Vanegas

    Thanks for the article, it was very helpful. Keep up the awesome work.


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